`Where's my teacher today?'

EMPLOYEES of a manufacturing plant in Freeport, Texas, have been enticed to lose weight by participating in a contest devised by a company employee. A total of 11 prizes such as a day off with pay, fishing trips, and movie tickets were awarded in a drawing to employees who met the eligibility requirements of losing more than five pounds each. Of the 586 employees who signed up, 176 met the goal -- shedding a collective ton of fat. A different kind of contest was announced recently in the West Haven, Conn., public school system by its superintendent of schools, Alfred J. Maiorano. He and other school administrators were concerned over the high absenteeism of their district's teachers. They presented a plan to the Board of Education to hold a drawing at the end of the school year for free airfare and accommodations for a week in Hawaii for employees with perfect attendance. Employees who use no more than two sick days per year will be eligible to participate in a drawing for a ``getaway weekend'' in Boston. This plan was approved by the Board of Education.

In announcing the plan, the superintendent of schools expressed concern that absenteeism cost taxpayers more than $169,000 last year. Funds for both trips will come from money budgeted for substitute teachers.

This plan was not received enthusiastically by West Haven's Federation of Teachers president Mary Moniger, who expressed doubt whether the plan would actually save any money. She called the plan an ``insult'' and a reward to one employee for what is expected of everyone. She predicted it would create antagonism among staff members. She offered no alternatives or possible solutions.

The other day I was talking to a West Haven teacher about this new plan. She stated that she thought the superintendent's lottery idea to curb absenteeism was ``demeaning.''

Clearly the superintendent chose the ``carrot'' rather than the ``stick'' method, and I think he's on the right track. No one is suggesting that teachers come to school when they are not fully chipper. The fact is, however, that some teachers do take advantage of their allotted sick days. They abuse the plan when, perfectly healthy, they call in sick to shop, run errands, and take long weekends.

When children are absent from school they often receive a phone call from the attendance officer to see whether they are home. Some police departments have instituted a plan whereby policemen who ``book off'' sick are subject to a home visit by a department official. If an absent officer is not at home, he or she can be brought up on charges.

Every school district in the US faces the problem of high teacher absenteeism. The problem is universal. Should they adopt a policy of this type? The fact that excessive and unwarranted absenteeism can break a school budget makes it an appealing idea. Think of the amount of money it costs large cities to hire substitutes. Think of the classroom materials this money could buy!

High absenteeism in a particular school district may be symptomatic of some deep-rooted problems. Teachers who are absent frequently may, in fact, dislike their jobs. They should be encouraged to seek other employment. Teachers who are absent frequently may resent their principals. They need to communicate with their principals without fear of reprisals. If this isn't done, they should transfer to another school.

What are some possible solutions to this problem? Let's put absenteeism in the context of a reward system and offer a few suggestions for reducing it. One teacher in a suburban school district told me that every year she receives a personal letter from the superintendent of schools because she's absent less than five days per year. She stated: ``I love this idea.'' It's been my experience that teachers love certificates and letters of commendation.

Teachers with perfect or near-perfect attendance should be awarded a certificate signed by the mayor or other public official as well as the superintendent of schools and distributed at a year-end ceremony or banquet and a copy placed in the teacher's personnel file.

Teachers who fall into this category can be given free membership in a professional organization of their choice along with a free subscription to an educational journal. It's amazing how many teachers don't belong to an organization or ever bother to read an article that might improve the quality of their teaching.

Teachers should also be given an extra professional day with expenses paid to attend a seminar, conference, or workshop dealing with specific areas of the curriculum.

Corporations and business firms can be approached to donate funds which can be used to give small cash awards to a selected number of teachers on a rotating basis who have good attendance.

Teachers who don't abuse sick leave time should be rewarded. It's as simple as that. There's no substitute for experience. If it takes certificates and other rewards to reduce absenteeism, I don't see anything wrong with doing so. Why? Because ultimately it translates into quality instruction for kids -- and that's the bottom line.

Nicholas P. Criscuolo is supervisor of reading at the New Haven, Conn., public schools.

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